It is virtually impossible to find someone who hasn’t, at some point in their life, felt out of place in their own body. This dysphoria can be due to a multiplicity of factors: family expectation, media standards, illness, physical strain, etc. Contending with the burden of our bodies can be a persistent task, but it is crucial to acknowledge that this feeling is exponentially more present for people who are perpetually un-recognized and unrepresented. For disabled people, this feeling is consistently imposed on them.
As with every other group attempting to promote diversity, the fight for body positivity has had its share of criticism for excluding disabled bodies from its campaigns. Ads claiming to portray “real” bodies or “diverse” bodies almost always restrict their definition of ‘diversity’ to race and sometimes to weight. The struggles to increase racial representation and to demand weight inclusivity are of course valuable, but they almost always forget to include disabled people in their fight. While it could be that these campaigns are simply prioritising one important issue over another, it is unfair to apply terms like “real bodies” and “body positive” to such an exclusive group of people. ‘Body positive’ is a term that should belong to anyone with a body, so the pressing question in the face of these struggles is why, even among these seemingly progressive movements, does this marginalisation of disabled people exist?
One of the reasons this discrepancy might continue is because, while having skin of a certain colour or a having a particular figure is perceived as a necessary aspect of one’s appearance, the disabled body is still viewed as an unfortunate exception. While some attributes are considered aesthetically marginalised, the disabled body is still viewed as a medical minority. Disabled bodies are constantly associated with pain, suffering, and medical concern. However, what might be perceived as a medical concern does not necessitate that a person must feel shame or inadequacy. And, just as with weight, a physical disability doesn’t always indicate a medical issue.
If body positivity is simply meant to promote a constructive perception of one’s own body, then that courtesy should be extended to all bodies.
It is important that movements concerning body positivity do not take on the same role as the powers against which they are struggling. These movements should not be about adding a few more categories to an elite club of acceptable bodies. They should be about destroying this system of categorisation in its entirety. These movements should be wary of becoming the new gatekeepers for what is satisfactory and what is not. It is not enough to construct new categories for what is beautiful.
In the end ‘beauty’ is already a category that, by necessity, excludes. We must instead take it upon ourselves to understand what body positivity is really about. It is about belonging—about thinking of oneself as a worthy member of a material human community. It is necessary to start taking ‘body positivity’ for what it really is. Not a re-definition of ‘beauty’, but a universal statement of self-acceptance that should be extended to abled and disabled bodies alike.
Illustration: Casey Linenberg